Creating Humane and Affordable Cities 3

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016
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As the world continues to urbanise, the most desirable cities are becoming increasingly unaffordable for average income people. Eye-popping rents in Melbourne and San Francisco, for example, force some residents to cram together in shared dwellings.

Many people must move to a cheaper area, which often results in a hefty commute to work, combined with crowded highways and inadequate public transportation. Most residents have no hope of ever owning their homes if they remain in the city. How do we go about creating humane and affordable cities?


Some of Melbourne’s tallest towers

Increasing density is, of course, necessary as cities grow and make more efficient use of their space. Expensive cities like San Francisco are caught in a trap; their popularity draws newcomers, and the city needs to drastically increase the number of new residences that are built in the existing land area. NIMBY neighbours and code restrictions, however, have blocked construction of new, higher-density development, so that from 2007 to 2014, area municipalities issued only half the building permits needed based on the area’s population growth.

One solution, where not blocked by codes and opponents, is to build endless blocks of towers. That certainly can create the volume of dwellings needed, but towers often feel dense, cold, and impersonal, and they’re not always family friendly. Single-family homes, in contrast, can provide a more spacious and warm environment, but they use land inefficiently, making them expensive in the city.

Melbourne is a perfect example of these trends, as highlighted in a report from  the Australian Population Research Institute. Sydney and Melbourne’s Housing Affordability Crisis: No End in Sight estimates that by 2022, Melbourne will have a surplus of 123,000 mostly high-rise units, but a deficit of 19,000 houses. The report noted a shortage of infill projects made up of low-rise apartment blocks, town houses, and detached houses.

Those building forms are more family friendly than towers, but still fit well in cities. What is the formula for a humane and affordable city? Here are some ideas:

  • It’s walkable and bikeable for people with varied physical abilities
  • Cars don’t dominate and aren’t needed
  • Density supports most daily needs with a 10 to 15 minute walk
  • Most building forms are low-rise, whether they’re residential, commercial, retail, or other
  • Green spaces such as parks are accessible in daily life
  • Green infrastructure, even just street trees, is a priority

What is a humane density? It depends on how it’s achieved, but skyscrapers are not required.

According to writer and urban analyst Aaron Renn, “Density, done right, can be supremely humane and livable.”

Renn lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with a density of 110,000 people per square mile and with few towers. Low-rise and mid-rise forms are much more humane and livable than towers and can achieve the density needed to maintain relatively affordable housing and livable, walkable neighbourhoods.

“If you can get to 110K density with mid- and low-rise buildings, skyscrapers just aren’t needed to provide any reasonable amount of density,” Renn wrote.

Renn compared the neighbourhood to the historic European model that survives in some well-known cities.

“I can see why it isn’t for everybody, but I think people would agree that a neighborhood built like Paris or Barcelona (and in fact lower rise than those cities in most places) is hardly a concrete nightmare,” he noted.

Renn’s formula for a humane and livable density is:

  • “The right built form, with a variegated style of low to mid-rise buildings – not high rise – and lots of quiet, tree lined, side streets, with mostly high quality architecture.
  • Infrastructure, notably the subways.
  • Amenities like Central Park, the Hudson River, and Lincoln Center.
  • Well-functioning public services, especially public safety and sanitation.”

Other urban theorists have also offered specific ideals. Writer Lloyd Alter described his concept of the “Goldilocks density.”

It’s “dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity. Not too high, not too low, but just right.”


Row houses in Montreal, Canada.

Alter proposes more building of a form he calls the “Euroloaf,” which he notes consists of “a mix of low street facing townhouses and long mid-rise apartment blocks of a relatively consistent height. They looked a lot like buildings from Paris or Scandinavia and were nicknamed ‘Euroloaf’ because they are kind of shaped like loaves of bread.”

It’s a way to increase density while maintaining humane and neighbourhood-friendly forms, and looks much like Missing Middle housing.

These higher-density forms can be incorporated into the existing urban fabric with relative ease through infill development, apart from the squawking from NIMBY neighbours and market distortions caused by negative gearing and other government policies. Density is increased, thereby chipping  away at the affordability issue. With boosted density, more businesses have incentive to locate in an area, increasing walkability and livability for the residents.

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  1. Barry b.

    While increased density will be an unavoidable necessity for Australia cities in future, let's hope our policymakers and urban planners do everything in their power to avoid the creation of impersonal cityscapes consisting of cold, featureless apartment towers.

  2. Jane Bringolf

    The discourse is still missing the principles of universal design – inclusive thinking and designing for our diverse population – physically, cognitively, and culturally.

    • Hi Jane, please elaborate. The article obviously is not about universal design, but does include this: "It’s walkable and bikeable for people with varied physical abilities".